Knowing When it’s Time: A Response to Rabbi Rosalind Gold
La-kol z’man; v’eit l’khol khefetz takhat ha-shamayim…eit s’fod v’eit r’kod…
(To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…a time to mourn and a time to dance…)
These words from Ecclesiastes 3, so familiar and widely affirmed to us in liturgy and in song, are nonetheless ignored in the common Reform practice of standing and reciting the Kaddish together in its entirety. And they move me to add some additional reflections to Rabbi Rosalind Gold’s moving and cogent argument in the new Winter 2013 edition of Reform Judaism magazine in favor of returning to a more traditional practice of inviting the mourners to rise in recognition of the reality and uniqueness of their experience.
In my own recent years of mourning for my son, Mitch, I appreciated those congregations whose practice invited mourners to be the first to rise, in acknowledgment of our unique status. Now, if invited to choose, I remain seated (except on yahrzeit or at yizkor), and it feels right, in part for the reasons Rabbi Gold articulated.
However, I think Kohelet (the author and the eponymous source of the Hebrew name of Ecclesiastes) brings home to us another spiritually and psychologically compelling reason to reconsider our communal practice. This is the affirmation of a deeply Jewish truth – that mourning should not be a permanent state of being. Though so much of our teaching and practice is in fulfillment of the mitzvah of zachor, “remember,” our remembrance is not intended to lock us into any one emotional state in perpetuity.
In this regard, I see two risks to our standard practice. First, for those not in a state of mourning, but simply rising and reciting together (perhaps by rote), we put ourselves at jeopardy of desensitizing ourselves to the very different feeling of true grief. Like Rabbi Gold, I think this is true even in remembrance of the Shoah – if our observance is to stand and recite in memory of the six million every time we pray, will we feel the more intense and poignant sensations of the moments dedicated precisely to that memory – particularly Yom HaShoah? Might we even experience confusion in regard to the immediate and acute experience of grief which is healthily experienced when one is a mourner?
This leads to the greater concern. The spiritual messages of our tradition and the wisdom of psychology suggest that grief is a phenomenon which is experienced in stages, and that one of those stages is that of moving beyond the acuity of immediate loss. Two years ago, I wrote in an article titled “Love Is Stronger Than Death” of the experience of moving from living “in grief” to living “with grief.” This is a healthy process, and when one goes too long without making that transition, it is generally recognized that such a person needs special assistance and support.
The traditional practices and timeline of Jewish mourning confirm this sentiment and sustain it. When the year of Kaddish for my son Mitch came to an end, I experienced a powerful mandate implicit in ceasing to stand and recite in unison – I had begun to return to the act of living, and even preparing to dance, which I did one month later, at the bar mitzvah celebration of our younger son, Nate.
For our spiritual and communal well-being, it is time we reconsider our communal practice of Kaddish. And I pray that for those still in the acute stages of grief, the following words from Isaiah 60, which I have recited at every unveiling at which I’ve officiated, may one day be fulfilled: “Thy sun shall no more go down, nor thy moon withdraw itself; for Adonai shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.”